While the election season may have come to an end in the United States, there are a number of important elections in Europe yet to be resolved. Of these, perhaps the most significant is the upcoming French election, which is scheduled to be held on April 23rd and May 7th. There are currently four major candidates in France, and the race is tight and full of controversy. The French election is particularly significant because of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front who mirrors Trump in her policy preferences. If she were to win, the entire EU would likely face increased strain or perhaps even collapse. Given the power of the French president – indeed, it is a position more powerful than just about any other executive in the world – France’s next president will have a large degree of latitude and will likely have a lasting impact both on France and the EU during these tumultuous times.
What is interesting about the French election is that, normally, there are actually two elections. According to French electoral rules, if no one candidate obtains a clear majority (at least 50% of the vote) during the first round of voting, there is a second round a few weeks later that pits the two candidates with the highest vote shares against one another. It is said that in the first round, the French vote with their hearts and support the candidate that most closely aligns with their political views. In the second round, though, they vote with their brains (there are no Stein or Johnson voters during round 2). This means that while radical candidates can gain alarming levels of support in the first round of voting, they almost inevitably get blown out in the second. With Le Pen performing incredibly well in French polls right now, it will be interesting to see if this dynamic repeats itself this year.
Like much of the West, France is facing a number of political and economic pressures that are straining its government institutions and civil society. After suffering a number of massive terrorist attacks, the French people are understandably concerned about refugee flows from the Middle East. The French economy has also been fairly stagnate, giving voters another reason for frustration. According to Heather Conley of CSIS, “French gross domestic product (GDP) grew by only 0.2 percent in the third quarter compared to the three previous months (1.1 percent year-on-year) after a -0.1 percent dip in the second quarter; unemployment hovers around 10 percent (a 0.1 percent increase compared to the second quarter); and the budget deficit is still above the 3 percent of GDP.” In short, there is not a lot for French voters to be happy about, and so the country is particularly vulnerable to the kind of political instability that has proliferated around the developed world.
The current set of French presidential candidates represent the full range of the political spectrum. As explained previously, Le Pen represents the far right populists. She has promised to hold a referendum on France’s membership in the EU monetary union, has resisted France’s integration into the NATO command structure, wants immigration restrictions, supports closer cooperation with Putin’s Russia, and, like Trump, favors protectionism and trade restrictions. The center-right is represented by long-time French politician and former prime minister François Fillon. Fillon supports policies broadly similar to those supported by the GOP in the U.S. In particular, he wants to decrease government spending and lower taxes on French corporations. He has also advocated for raising the retirement age and ending France’s 35 hour work week. Fillon was, until recently, favored to win the election given his brand name, relative moderation compared to Le Pen, and ability to cut into Le Pen’s base. However, a recent scandal involving Fillon’s wife has tanked his support, and most poll-watchers now agree that he is unlikely to win the presidency.
The center-left is represented by a rising star in French politics, Emmanuel Macron. Macron is an independent, running under his own En Marche Party, and his views are broadly in line with centrist Democrats in the U.S. He is pro-E.U. and economically liberal. He also has the highest favorable ratings of any of the French presidential candidates. While his platform is not as well-defined as some of the other candidates, it seems to be based around a defense of the existing order and is surprisingly popular. The newest polls seem to suggest that Macron will win the election (unless some major new developments occur in the next few weeks), and his success is reassuring to people who, like me, despise the populist extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. Finally, the Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon is a former education minister with little political exposure. His platform calls for raising the minimum wage, enforcing a 32 hour work week, and a so-called “robot tax” on automation. Despite being considered the most honest candidate, Hamon has had fairly weak poll numbers and is highly unlikely to survive past the first round.
With Germany voting this fall, the French presidential election will be an important bellwether. It’s too early to say for sure who will succeed François Hollande as President of France. With the nightmare that was 2016, though, we should all hope that France’s tradition of pragmatic moderation continues in 2017. If France falls to the extremists, the entire European project will be imperiled. And despite what President Trump seems to believe, that would be bad for all of us.